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None of these may be serious by itself, but the total effect can be severe. Impairment of the brain in the aged is associated with decreased circulation of the blood and the precious substances it carries, especially oxygen and glucose. This is probably why old people remember happenings of their youth more vividly than those of the recent past; the youthful memories were implanted when blood circulation was better.
Yet severe mental impairment occurs only in part of the elderly generation. Everyone knows of men and women who are vigorous and alert mentally into the ninth or even the tenth decade of life. Their existence proves that impaired mental powers are not an inevitable accompaniment of the passing years, but a result of disease processes.
Science knows of no reason why the average person cannot continue to learn with at least 85 to 90 percent efficiency through the seventh decade and beyond. It would be a fine thing if retired people went back to school or college or began to learn new skills and subjects. On the false notion that they are “too old to learn” millions of elderly people cut themselves off from exhilarating intellectual adventures.
5. Your mental powers grow with use. Like the muscular system of the body the brain tends to atrophy with disuse, and to become better with exercise. This is proved by the fact that if the optic nerve is destroyed early in life, the brain cells in the corresponding visual area of the brain stay undeveloped.
As your brain matures, the nerve fibers are surrounded with a fatty substance called myelin and they do not function properly until this has taken place. A new-born baby lacks most of its myelin, which is one reason why we cannot remember much that happened before we are two or three years old. Many physiologists believe that intensive exercise of any part of the brain encourages the growth of additional all-important myelin.
Anything you do with your brain exercises it, though obviously there is more exercise in doing something difficult than something easy. The more reasoning you do, the easier it is to go on to new reasoning. The ability to memorize also improves with practice. The late Robert S. Woodworth of Columbia University estimated that the time required to memorize anything can, with practice, be reduced as much as two thirds.
Every aspect of your personality is stored in your brain. This includes your will power, which is also developed by practice. Each time you exert your will to drive yourself to the completion of an unpleasant or irksome task you make it a little easier next time to do what you need to do.
6. The storehouse of the unconscious mind. The most wonderful part of your mind is undoubtedly the unconscious, which lies below the recoverable memory and is thousands of times larger. We don’t yet know very much about the unconscious mind, but we are learning fast and someday may know how to tap its great powers.
Your unconscious mind contains many millions of past experiences that, so far as your conscious mind knows, are lost forever. By means of several devices we now know how to bring back lost memories. One method is “free association,” used by psychiatrists. If a patient lets his conscious mind wander at will, it can give him clues to forgotten things which, skillfully pursued by the doctor, will bring up whole networks also help in this process; hypnotism, too, can be of tremendous value in exploring a patient’s unconscious.
Many psychologists believe that we can make more use of our unconscious minds. Innumerable people have found that they can profitably “talk to” their unconscious. Some people find that they can bid themselves to wake up at a certain time in the morning. You can sometimes even improve your tomorrow’s mood if you will say to yourself when you go to bed- and believe it- that you will be more cheerful in the morning.
7. The old brain and the new. Your brain may be described (with severe over-simplification) as having three parts: the upper, the middle and the lower. The lower section is where the automatic functions of the brain are performed-keeping the blood and lungs functioning, for instance. The mid-brain participates in these operations but also serves as a bridge, to pass messages on to the upper brain or cerebral cortex. This top part of the brain is the single characteristic which most strongly separates man from animal.
The earliest living organisms on the earth had only a trace of the upper brain, or none at all; as we come down through evolution, the proportion steadily increases, which is why the upper is called the “new brain.” Even the highest of the primates, the chimpanzee and the gorilla, have at most only one third as much upper brain as a human being.
While we have been developing the new brain, we have, of course, retained all the characteristics of the old. When certain areas inside your skull are electrically stimulated, you will bite and scratch like an animal. To some extent, the old brain represents ruthless egotism, while the new is a seat of elaborate abstract concepts like honor, esprit de corps and beauty. Growing up represents the triumph of the new brain over the old.
Deep emotion in the old brain can blot out the circuits in the new brain which represent reason and foresight. The man who commits a murder in a sudden rage knows, with his new brain, that he is likely to be caught and punished , but he does not think of these things until his passion has subsided.
We must not, of course, try to live by the intellect alone or reject the legitimate and important demands of the emotions. Pushing down into the unconscious a legitimate emotional impulse can only cause it to fester there. We must, however, try to keep the old brain and the new in proper proportion to each other, remembering that when either gets the upper hand too completely the human being cannot properly fulfill his destiny.
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